A reflection on current academia reality: is it gaining religious features?

Quoting Alice Dreger, “academy is the last organized place we have to teach millions of adults to doubt authority, to look things up, to weigh ideas and evidence, to argue in a nonviolent fashion, to do the hard work of changing their own minds […] the academy is also the last place… where truly independent research can be conducted […]” (Dreger, 2017).

I decided to write this preface to my thesis because I believe that it is fundamental for everyone, especially for a PhD student, to take the eye patches that narrow the focus and attention into their work and look around, see, reflect and to build a critical view of, at least, their bubble in this world. You can see this as an exercise towards the suggestion placed by Edwards & Roy (2017) in their paper that beyond conventional goals of achieving quantitative metrics, a PhD program should also be viewed as an exercise in building character, with some emphasis on the ideal of practicing science as service to humanity.

It is critical, in my own opinion, that a PhD student develops an idea of what is the present state of science. Not the state of the art of its own field of research, but how science in general is evolving and functioning globally. There is no point in being part of the scientific community and merely specialize yourself in a nanodot of knowledge. For societies to properly function and evolve, individuals must have a critical knowledge of it. Otherwise we’ll be no more than working ants in a giant colony.

Science is probably the last bastion of true freethinking but is being swallowed by this make-money-get-profit world. Science and scientists are becoming more and more detached from the pure curiosity that once drove them, and they are embracing this notion of profitable science, which means that an idea must first be sold in order to be explored. XXI century scientists need strong marketing skills, beside scientific capabilities, since for a scientist to be able to develop research in his field, he must first sell it to get funding. This, of course, comes with a price.

In naturally profitable scientific fields, for e.g. pharmacology, biotechnology or applied physics, the price is lower, and usually consists on adjusting the direction of a certain study to the best economic outcome. In present market and economic laws this outcome usually fits with lowest possible costs to highest possible value. But what when there is no direct profit? Fundamental science, for example. To be able to sell it in order to get funding a scientist is frequently forced to bend or adjust the narrative used to describe its project. From that moment onwards, it doesn’t matter how hard he will then fight to ignore the adaptations used in the marketing plan. His focus, his scientific agenda is forever deviated, since he must present results in line with what was proposed. One good example is how climate change is frequently introduced into projects which have nothing to do with it. Let’s imagine that I want to study how a shark species hunts and reproduces. My best chance to get funding is to sell it as the effects of climate change on the behaviour and the future of the species. This will condition the approach and publications, regardless of what the researcher truly wanted to focus in the beginning.

We are embracing, in science and as scientists, the same values and rules of the financial markets. We have transformed it into the monetisation of science (see Horton, 2016). This means that no longer the primary goal of science is to increase knowledge for the growth and prosperity of mankind but to obtain profits and be economically strong, under present neoliberal economic principles.

We are moving away from what science should be. It is like we, the scientists, decided to forget the teachings of our great predecessors that fought, even when what was expecting them was to be burned alive, for a free thinking and exploration of our Universe, battling against all dogmas and absolute truths.

This view is supported by evidence, like any scientific idea should be. Today it is mainly the number of publications, instead of their quality, that evaluates researchers. This method, which has been growingly criticised, managed to produce some truly disturbing consequences.

Van Noorden (2011) brings the effects of this system during the first decade of the 21st century. Scientific papers publishing increased 44% during this period. However, retractions increased by 1.000%! And nearly half of them are for misconduct! The problem is still growing. In 2016 around 650 retractions were accounted, which was similar to 2015 numbers. Unfortunately, instead of stabilizing, 2017 closed with over 1.000 retractions (data from Retraction Watch).

The problem of evaluating researchers by their number of publications, and worst, of generating a tremendous pressure on scientists to publish, is not only the increase of misconduct, but also the decrease of scientific quality. Both Richard Horton and John Ioannidis state that nearly half of what is currently published in the medical sciences field is most likely untrue (Ioannidis, 2005; Horton, 2015).

Fanelli (2009) published a study, covering several scientific fields, with frightening results showing that, on average, 1.97% of scientists admitted having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once, and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.1% for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Although the data covered more cases in the medical sciences, it is still curious to note that misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others in this study.

But the problem does not end here. Horton (2015) also discusses the responsibilities of the journals and editors in this new publishing reality, with thousands of scientific journals desperate to gain their share of the now highly profitable scientific publishing market. Marcovitch (2010) talks about the effects of Impact Factor for the selection of papers by editors, favouring certain types of studies, known for being highly cited, and neglecting low citable articles regardless of the quality of each.

And what about open access? In principle it is a good idea, but the question is how to achieve it. The competition and the primary focus on profits are so deeply entangled that quality, ethics and truth is frequently left aside. Bohannon (2013) gives us the results of submitting a flawed paper to 304 open access journals, with more than half accepting it.

But probably the best deceiving paper ever submitted was the one by Neuroskeptic, a neuroscientist that uses this pseudonym to write a blog in Discovery Magazine. Testing predatory journals, he wrote a paper about midi-chlorians, which are what makes “the force” possible in the Star Wars movies. He presented references such as Palpatine (1957), and authored the paper as Lucas McGeorge and Annette Kin. In the words of the author, the manuscript is an absurd mess of factual errors, plagiarism and movie quotes. Even so, 4 of the 9 journals that received the manuscript accepted it, and 3 published it online before receiving the publication fees.

“Over the last 50 years the incentives for academic scientists have become increasingly perverse in terms of competition for research funding, development of quantitative metrics to measure performance, and a changing business model for higher education itself. If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences for humanity” (Edwards & Roy, 2017). They present an 11-page article on how this new business model academia is putting the very science at risk. In the conclusions they make a series of suggestions that, although defend the values science should stand for, are perhaps a bit naive for modern human society values.

This desperate scenario of obtaining funding and publishing papers generated a completely new scientific communication strategy, which is now putting at risk centuries of work from the scientific community to create trust in the general public. Instead of bringing science to the public, of teaching and sharing knowledge, scientists and the academia are behaving more like priests, presenting dogmas and absolute truths, rejecting discussions and using persuasion as a way of spreading the message. This can actually be seen between scientists, with climate science being probably the best example of a scientific field where no longer scientific discussions are tolerated. Either you defend climate change or you’re against it. Something I have only seen in religion before…

Fiske & Dupree (2014) talk about this communication problem. Although they use climate science as an example of good communication (and I agree regarding the transmission of the message to the general public), they state, “rather than persuading, we and our audiences are better served by discussing, teaching, and sharing information”.

There is in fact a dark path for science that we have already started to cross. From the transformation of science into a business model and the now giant world of scientific publishing, to the pressure and demand over students and researchers, we scientists are the first to be harming science. Maybe we should listen more to the ones that are trying to warn us about future consequences of this road. Maybe we could listen to Peter Higgs, who in an interview to The Guardian on December 6, 2013, told, “today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough”. But the Nobel Prize, with only 20 publications in his entire career, did not stop here. He also stated, “it’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”. An interview worth reading.

Claude Huriet said it all in a recent article in European Scientist (2018): scientific publication is not an end in itself. It should not be confused with an advertising approach, let alone comparative advertising in a competitive context. “Content” is supposed to contribute, for cognitive or fundamental research, to the advancement of knowledge, and to the improvement of the human condition, based on what we call applied research.

On a personal experience, I exposed my thoughts on this subject once, during an official PhD evaluation meeting performed by the PhD Evaluation Commission. My inquisitors then asked me if I had rich parents. One should always keep in mind that the problem is never in who makes the rules, but in who obeys.

I wanted to become a scientist for as long as I can remember. Questioning the Universe, exploring our world and digging to understand all that surrounds us is what drives my character since childhood. It breaks my heart to see science and scientists working not to question absolute truths, but yet to create them.

“Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its
ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.”
Quote unofficially attributed to Nikola Tesla

By Gonçalo Prista
Instituto Dom Luiz, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal;
MARE – Marine and Environmental Sciences CentreEscola Superior de Turismo e Tecnologia do Mar e Instituto Politecnico de Leiria
goncalo.prista (at) ipleiria.pt

Featured image credit: Pedro Veliça - Pedromics

References

Bohannon, J., 2013. Who’ s Afraid of Peer Review ? Sci. Mag. 342, 60–65. doi:10.1126/science.342.6154.60

Dreger, A., 2017. Take Back the Ivory Tower – democracy depends on having a public capable of thinking. Chron. Rev. – Chron. High. Educ. 1–12.

Edwards, M.A., Roy, S., 2017. Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition. Environ. Eng. Sci. 34, 51–61. doi:10.1089/ees.2016.0223

Fanelli, D., 2009. How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS One 4. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

Fiske, S.T., Dupree, C., 2014. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 13593–13597. doi:10.1073/pnas.1317505111

Horton, R., 2015. Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma? Lancet 385, 1380. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60696-1

Horton, R., 2016. Offline: The crisis in scientific publishing. Lancet 388, 322. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31132-1

Predatory Journals Hit By ‘Star Wars’ Sting (accessed August 16th 2018)

Huriet, C., 2018. Publish or perish: How to burst the bubble of scientific publication inflation? 20th September 2018

Ioannidis, J.P.A., 2005. Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med. 2, 0696–0701. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Marcovitch, H., 2010. Editors, publishers, impact factors, and reprint income. PLoS Med. 7, 7–8. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000355

Van Noorden, R., 2011. Science publishing: The trouble with retractions. Nature 478, 26–28. doi:10.1038/478026a

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4 thoughts on “A reflection on current academia reality: is it gaining religious features?”

  1. Indeed the situation in academia looks very much like a typical corporate situation of business and corporations. Nevertheless, I can only offer you some hope in that it is still possible, although difficult, to follow your own interest and be relatively happy doing real research, I mean real, investigating natural phenomena and not the bureaucratic chores many take today as “science”. I wrote some pieces of advice and my own story of avoiding much of the bureaucratic and imposed nonsense with which we have to deal, in “The Rise of the Scientist-Bureaucrat— Survival Guide for Researchers in the 21st Century”, in case it may help you see some light in this 21st-century academic business.

    1. Thank you very much for sharing your publication. I’m going to look into it and I’m sure it will be a pleasure to read, and that I’ll find some ideas for the future. I hope to see some light but regarding that I still have my doubts 🙂

  2. And… the comparison to religion becomes more pronounced when scholars exhibit blind faith in their field (or sub-field, or sub-sub-field) of study. This is particularly present in the social/behavioral sciences.